“Identity politics” rises on all sides. Identity politics are commonly attributed to the political left, where they are a response to the original, historical identity politics – male, and, in the modern era, significantly white and Eurocentric. Reactionaries on the right deny this original phenomenon. They call it reality. Nothing to see here. Look right through it. Yet in response to humankind’s increasingly global reorientation, reactionaries now reassert their racial and national identities. Their more moderate, which is to say conservative, intellectual defenders offer covert, rationalized support for this cultural revanchism. Its representatives, they say, are angry; they feel left behind by the confluence of progressive internationalism and neoliberal economics; they feel, of all things, marginalized. In offering this empathic defense of, for instance, the Trump voter, conservatives manage to ignore the contradiction between this desire for reclamation and denials of the historical politics of white, Eurocentric identity.
Both on the right and the left, identity politics are attacks on the Enlightenment legacy of progressive liberalism. From opposing authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies, both attack the reasoned and negotiated terms of an objective world. This is so with Trumpism – the convergence of modern political and media manipulations of human subjectivity – and it is likewise the case with the current, leftwing campus politics that assails the prevailing norms of liberty with distorted, subjective conceptions of social justice. Of the latter, Ulrich Baer’s unprepossessingly titled “What ‘Snowflakes’ Get Right About Free Speech” offered a recent, notable theoretical rationale – and only a month after its April 2017 publication in the New York Times, recent events at Evergreen State College in Washington have provided full demonstration of the dangers of Baer’s ideas. Though Malhar Mali and Iona Italia have covered some aspects of Baer’s essay in Areo, I believe there is far more to understand about its theoretical operations.
Baer’s essay, published at The Stone, the Times web forum moderated by philosopher Simon Critchley of the New School for Social Research, was sufficiently controversial that it soon included a disclaimer that Baer, a vice-provost at New York University, spoke only for himself. It is a remarkable document, to begin, because it sets forth in lucid prose, devoid of the theoretical obscurantism and political jargon by which the ideas it espouses more commonly hide from sight, a plainly totalitarian conception of speech, softened by the gentler patter of liberal-friendly (but, in conception, entirely illiberal) social justice.
Baer wrote in response to what were only the latest high profile incidents on American campuses in which conservative thinkers – Charles Murray, at Middlebury College – and provocateurs, Milos Yiannopoulos, at Berkeley (and Ann Coulter, just as Baer was going to publication) – were prevented from speaking by organized threats and even acts of violence. These illiberal outbursts of intolerance don’t get much public support outside of a narrow culture of far-left journals and the intersectional blogosphere, so a defense in The New York Times by a major research university provost is a notable occasion. Early critical reactions to the essay, however, failed to take the full measure of its offense, which, as if by illustrative providence, events at Evergreen arose to demonstrate.
Baer develops three themes. The first is the superior value of subjective experience over reason. The second is a utilitarian conception of free speech. The third – the ground of all postmodern, post-Marxist theorizing – is the ungrounded claim that a power differental disfavoring the historically disempowered nullifies all other terms of a condition or argument.
Near the start of his essay, Baer quotes Shoah film documentarian Claude Lanzmann’s surprising, perhaps shocking response to a Holocaust survivor who took issue with him based on her personal history.
“Madame,” Lanzmann responded, “you are an experience, but not an argument.”
Baer does not cite the response in defense of reason.
He begins to make his case by claiming a fait accompli: “During the 1980s and ’90s, a shift occurred in American culture; personal experience and testimony, especially of suffering and oppression, began to challenge the primacy of argument.”
Why the “personal experience and testimony” of “suffering and oppression” should hold greater value than that of joy and sublimity, or, let’s say, any Christian’s profound ascension into grace, Baer doesn’t advise. But he is beginning to make what for the moment I’ll call “a case.” After acknowledging how provocative this challenge to “the primacy of argument” has been to both liberals and conservatives, who are thereby conjoined in opposition, Baer states, “My view … is that we should resist the temptation to rehash these debates. Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred.”
One wonders, is rehashing a bad thing? Is it because a thing once decided is decided forever? Apparently not for the verities of reason and argument, and one might have thought that if anything…. Yet Baer has now begun to make what one must unavoidably call, of all things, an argument, even if, regrettably an awful one. To repeat (at the risk of rehashing): “Doing so would overlook the fact that a thorough generational shift has occurred.” If not quite a bandwagon argument – there are those recalcitrant liberals and conservatives holding to, as Baer would have it, a literally outmoded notion of free speech – it is certainly an argument to novelty. And, we will see, Baer being a slippery vice-provost, he is beginning to rehash the debate.
How does Baer rehash the debate? Does he accumulate personal anecdote of experience upon anecdote of experience, perorated with songs of exclusion and pain, until the proverbial mountain of evidence prevents any vision beyond it? Can’t you see what’s in front of your face?
Or does he argue?
We see that he does. Even a Neanderthal extending a thigh bone across the fire to his mate and grunting is making an argument. Does Baer argue with employment of reason? He tries. How can, indeed, the speakers of different languages – those palettes with which to paint the canvas of reality – communicate with one another? One can learn the language of the other – or both can, reciprocally. Which to use? Baer chooses reason over subjective experience, as well he might in an essay of not even eighteen hundred words, in which there is little space for the massive, inductive accrual of increasingly probabilistic evidence. But what shall be the basis by which we evaluate our communications, and by what criteria shall we choose the basis, and persuade each other when we disagree?
In fact, if I may use that expression, Baer’s guiding light in his essay, philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, raised the same issue in his 1983 The Differend, when he wrote of those conflicts in which “the rules of the genre of discourse by which one judges are not those of the judged genre or genres of discourse.”
According to Lyotard, “applying a single rule of judgment to both [parties in dispute] in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).” This is especially so when one party’s discourse is powerfully institutionalized and the other’s is not. The problem, claims Lyotard is that “a universal rule of judgment between heterogeneous genres is lacking in general.” Or so Lyotard reasons. And so does Baer, who proceeds to offer a series of direct and embedded claims that we will call debatable.
Baer further tells us that Lyotard, in the 1979 The Postmodern Condition, analyzed “how public discourse discards the categories of true/false and just/unjust in favor of valuing the mere fact that something is being communicated.”
You feel me?
“Instead of defining freedom of expression as guaranteeing the robust debate from which the truth emerges,” Baer relates, “…. Lyotard shifted attention away from the content of free speech to the way certain topics restrict speech as a public good.”
Slipped into Baer’s definition of free speech, however, is a bug, that hyperbolic contention – one might call it a straw man – that free speech guarantees anything but itself, much less “the robust debate from which the truth emerges.” History gives the continual lie to that claim, but one need look no farther than the 2016 election of Trump to the American presidency. “Robust debate” under disadvantageous conditions can be catastrophic. But that is reason to alter those conditions, not the unrestricted debate, which history likewise demonstrates is the only way other than force of arms to retain or return freedom of expression to those who have lost it. In light of Trump’s rise, though, and that of Putin, and Chavez, and Erdogan, just these past two decades, in at least modestly free societies, one might fairly say, revising Churchill, that free expression is the very worst way to get at the truth, except for all the others.
What Baer, nonetheless, attempts in his ahistorical definition is to frame free speech as a utilitarian means to an end: the truth. Pragmatically so framed, it is easier to jettison: what does not work must be revised or replaced. Via Lyotard, Baer substitutes both a more functional, yet more value-laden end for free speech – the public good, which, certainly, we should think, truth is, but since that old-fashioned form of free speech is decidedly imperfect in establishing the truth, can even lead to its opposite, falsity, and permits offense, we might better redefine it, according to Baer, as that which produces respectful speech from all who stand facing each other as equals in the circle. Here is the disastrous end of Baer’s reasoning, formulated as if the twentieth century never happened:
“Some things are unmentionable and undebatable, but not because they offend the sensibilities of the sheltered young. Some topics, such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing, are not open to debate because such people cannot debate them on the same terms.
The recent student demonstrations… should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people, rather than censorship.”
What Baer focuses on here is offense to identity, against “some human beings,” or “such people,” who cannot exercise free speech from a position of equal power. He does not state which people exactly are to be placed into that category (though we suspect he has handy categories in mind), or what the regime for deciding such placement shall be. However, this is one of many points at which postmodern undecidability shall not trouble the post-Marxist inclination. Wrote Marx and Engels, in their famous formulation from The German Ideology:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”
It is not a given, in recognizing the profound force of this insight, that any particular idea is thereby invalidated or unsound. To recognize the composition of the whole is not to see it in each part. Nor is the part inferential to the whole, which is one reason an experience is not an argument. In asserting, moreover, that oppressive, libertine – one might even declare bourgeois – speech shall be restricted in the interests of “a greater group of people,” Baer is again simply mimicking Marx and Engels: “Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.”
Wrote Andrzej Walicki in “Marx and Freedom”:
“As an instrument of the most severe and powerful criticism of the classical liberal view of freedom, Marx’s concept exposed some important weaknesses of the early nineteenth-century version of liberalism. At the same time Marx’s concept produced dangerous consequences by radically questioning the central value of the liberal conception—individual freedom. This was so because, as I shall try to show, Marx replaced the idea of individual freedom safeguarded by law with an idea of the emancipation of humanity, conceived as collective salvation in history.”
It is a quality of mind among some kinds of recalcitrant free thinker always to disdain the hard-earned easy lessons of history, such as that visions of collective salvation are mirages of doom, and that utopia is a painted sky with a cardboard sun, constructed to studio-light dystopia. Lyotard, Baer’s touchstone, proffered no standard by which participants of different genres of discourse might negotiate a resolution of their agonism; most notably, in The Postmodern Condition, he defined the “postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.” To the point here, he argued, “The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.” Yet the post-Marxist voice of the postmodern Baer has entered the business of declaring that some claims “are not open to debate” because to restrict such debate, and quash the voices of those who would engage in it, is necessary “to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.” Thus, from The German Ideology to the disease of bourgeois individualism to the emancipation of the subaltern and the intersectionally oppressed, the grand or metanarrative survives in denial of itself. And we shall not call it censorship. We shall redefine the right of free speech not as free – which is to say unrestricted – utterance of ideas and beliefs, but as how the free speech of some restricts, subjectively experienced, the free speech of others, because of how those others feel in response to such speech, and thus restrict, objectively, the speech of some so that others may feel empowered and emancipated.
Or so we are told. Some people are always a downer.
It might seem a given, which is to say eminently reasonable, that if, according to Baer, “the parameters of public speech must be continually redrawn to accommodate those who previously had no standing,” the way in which to redraw those parameters would be to broaden them. It is only the totalitarian mind that conceives of an object of thought in terms of its opposite, and erases the distinction, so that we may name things what they are not. The postmodernist attacks binary thinking as a logocentric illusion; the post-Marxist then whisks away the handkerchief to reveal the unitary object-substitute: the renamed opposite. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Freedom is slavery. Love is hate. Of course, the ultimate power in what is conjured, then, as what we might call a binary-unitary, arises in its institutionalization – that is the thrill for the American right in Trump’s victory and the dressing up of the phantasm “alternative fact.” That is why Slavoj Zizek writes, in his introduction to the Zizek reader, that what “I find theoretically and politically engaging in the religious legacy is not the abstract messianic promise of some redemptive Otherness, but, on the contrary, religion in its properly dogmatic and institutional aspect.” Not surprisingly, then, we find in some contemporary American political controversies, over the provision of certain public services to LGBTQ people and women, the same impulse toward the reification of subjective experience, among Christian right fundamentalists.
In 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) was introduced in the United States House and Senate, passing almost unanimously. Its intent was to ensure freedom of religious expression by protecting against the imposition of a substantial burden in the practice of religion. Originally aimed, liberally and now ironically, at protecting varied Native American religious practices, it was basis, in 2013, for the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, arising from health coverage requirements of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Hobby Lobby, which objected on religious grounds to paying for its employees’ contraceptive coverage, was determined to be exempt from regulation on the grounds of its owners’ Christian religious objection. Since Hobby Lobby, numerous states have passed, in furtherance of the federal RFRA, their own RFRAs, including Indiana, in 2015, under then Governor Mike Pence. Consequent to passage, varied Indiana business claimed the right, in what they call the free exercise of their religion, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers.
In the Christian right instance, as with Baer’s social justice warriors, we find the same assertion, that the freedom of one is enhanced by denial of freedom to another. In both instances, in an act of redefinition, the freedom of the other is even discounted as freedom at all: it is not freedom, but instead – religious or secular – sin. In neither case are the aggrieved restricted from acting affirmatively for themselves – the expression of freedom; rather, they extend the claim of freedom as a right to act restrictively on others, to deny healthcare delivery or a platform of speech. In both cases, those who would restrict the freedom of others have accepted, as employer or college student, a public role as member of a community, of workers or learners. Both deny equal participation in that community to those they characterize as offensive to them, on the basis of the aggrieved’s subjective, felt experience, reconfigured as an objective detriment.
Though Baer wrote in response to multiple events early in 2017, it was a month later that his ideas were fully epitomized at Evergreen State College. A racial consciousness event organized by the college’s First People’s Multicultural Advising Services, called a Day of Absence, included the request that white people absent themselves from campus for a day. Bret Weinstein, a popular and self-described “deeply progressive” professor of biology, distributed an email objecting to the racist nature of this plan. This set off a maelstrom of events that led to the campus closure for two days because of threats of violence.
Initially, Weinstein was confronted at his classroom by a horde of angry students condemning his dissent as itself racist. The video of the confrontation is testimony to Weinstein’s admirable composure and pedagogical nature, even under great stress. Seeking the dialogue in which the students clearly have no interest, he attempted to instruct them in the difference between debate and dialectic. “Debate,” he informed, “means you are trying to win. Dialectic means you are using disagreement to discover what is true. I am not interested in debate. I am interested only in dialectic, which does mean, I listen to you, and you listen to me.”
True to the intellectual tradition by which these students were shaped, which rejects the tradition and terms of Weinstein’s didactic appeal, the students were furiously unresponsive. Baer argues that some “debates” should not be “rehashed” and that “[s]ome topics … are not open to debate because such [marginalized] people cannot debate them on the same terms.” Baer’s spiritual students have been well taught, for here they are in response to the appeal for dialogue: “We don’t care what terms you want to speak on. This is not about you. We are not speaking on terms—on terms of white privilege. This is not a discussion. You have lost that one.” (Baer: “a thorough generational shift has occurred.”) Similar rejections of any right of interlocution were heard in the fiercely charged and angry meetings with Evergreen’s president, George Bridges: “FUCK YOU GEORGE, we don’t wanna listen to a GODDAMN thing you have to say! No, you shut the fuck up!”
These encounters are packed with representations of varied forms of devolved and totalitarian impulse. The refusal to listen – the very rejection of dialogue itself and any right to speak – are most obviously reflective of Baer’s argument, but there is, crucially, what is appealed to as the basis for the rejection, too. In the paragraph above, I elided from the repeated quotation from Baer, about the kind of topic that should not be open to debate, the clause, “such as claims that some human beings are by definition inferior to others, or illegal or unworthy of legal standing.” So absurdly distant from any such characterization was Weinstein’s objection to the Day of Absence – on his own charge of racism – that one might overlook that it is precisely on these terms of Baer’s that Weinstein, Bridges, and others were shouted down and told they had no right to speak. Weinstein as a white man (actually, a Jew) was told that on the basis of his “white privilege,” this “is not a discussion.” At the first meeting with Bridges, we hear, “Whiteness is the most violent fuckin’ system to ever breathe!” and “I’m tired of white people talking about what black and brown people need.” In response to all of Bridges’ quite obsequious attempts to engender discussion of students’ complaints, he was told,
“You have the fucking nerve to, like, fucking dehumanize our (unintelligible)!”
And there it was.
In consequence of Weinstein’s objection to any group being directed off campus on the basis of race, in response to faculty and administrative efforts to engage the students without immediate agreement to all student demands, the declaration was made that the students were victims of an effort to “dehumanize” them. Baer’s determinant for depriving some people of free speech was arrived at.
It is no accident that the students’ own speech is so foul and disrespectful, indeed, dehumanizing. Recall that, according to Baer, current free speech standards are such that “public discourse discards the categories of true/false and just/unjust in favor of valuing the mere fact that something is being communicated.” These students are communicating their feelings. Feelings are raw, the raw is the real, and to speak as new-form intellects who remain, nonetheless, still in touch with their roots is to mix ideological, social-justice-theory jargon with the language of the streets. To reason coolly in the dialectic that, as Weinstein would have it, seeks truth is to practice and accede to the white male hegemon, the Western imperium. It is, further, to be coopted, and to fall for the long political con, for anyone merely, carefully – quaintly – simply to disagree; to be revolutionary means to call bullshit. (David Palumbo-Liu: “Civility is for Suckers.”) Thus, it is no accident either that Weinstein and those who supported him on campus, including other students, have been harassed and threatened with doxing, that Weinstein was told by campus police that they could not guarantee his safety on campus, and that he has, unsupported by Bridges, had to absent himself from Evergreen.
It has always been so that the terms of postmodern social justice totalitarianism are less stable than those they deconstruct, the foundation of the antifoundationalist palace of mirrors a glass floor rather ominously too transparent. So it is that in in Baer’s shoddy argument against argument, he offers everyone the incoherence of an escape hatch in the sky: “It is called the internet, where all kinds of offensive expression flourish unfettered on a vast platform available to nearly all.” Needless to say, Baer doesn’t identify from whom and how the Select who are permitted to speak on campus earn their status, or why his argument about campus speech does not apply to internet only.
Far, though, from the intellectual stumblings of Ulrich Baer, or the hateful, bratty Red Guards at Evergreen State College – who in the name of anti-racism and opposing dehumanization, reductively dehumanize all who disagree with them, and do, with their every thoughtless and cant exclamation, bring opprobrium on others because of their innate characteristics – was the ever-humanizing vision of Albert Camus. Wrote Camus in The Rebel: “[I]n no case, if he is consistent, does [the rebel] demand the right to destroy the existence and the freedom of others. He humiliates no one. The freedom he claims, he claims for all; the freedom he refuses, he forbids everyone to enjoy. He is not only the slave against the master, but also man against the world of master and slave.”
Human dignity begins in freedom. It is not a utility, an instrument to some greater value. Every experience of liberty is its own value, every occasion of freedom its own end. Freedom of speech is the final act, in utterance, of the freedom to learn, to know, to think, and, finally, to be. Freedom is not full human dignity. It is merely the beginning of dignity. But as that beginning, it is the foundation for all that adds to it. Whenever we subordinate it to other ends, but most especially that which seeks to place itself beyond reason, and within the virtue of its own inherent passion, we grant license for freedom to be taken away. We must not do that. We must not be fooled again. The end of free speech will be free speech, or it will be the end of free speech.
A. Jay Adler is Professor Emeritus in English at Los Angeles Southwest College and currently teaches in the English departments at Fordham University and Queens College, CUNY. He writes in all genres, and was a featured writer, with a collection of his poetry and creative nonfiction, in the inaugural issue of Footnote, a Literary Journal of History. His political writing focuses on rhetorical analysis. Follow him on Twitter at @thesadredearth.